Before I notice anything about him, I notice the green plastic flyswatter in his hand.
It’s not normal for a child of his age, I think, not judgmentally, but clinically. Diagnostically. Mariel has been holding onto a plastic ring for the past hour, but she’s 10 months old. That’s one of her developmental tasks. The boy is six or seven years… I’ve never been good at discerning age. Besides, it’s hard to tell with him. He is trying to hoist himself, backwards, into the bucket swing next to us, the one for infants and toddlers. Not normal. And yet, he could fit in the swing, I think. He’s tallish and spindly, but almost old man spindly; his arms are frighteningly thin, not a malnourished thin, exactly, but a fragile thin, a “he’s-not-entirely-well” thin. That’s not normal, either.
I keep an eye on him while I swing Mariel back and forth, back and forth. Eventually, he looks toward me, but not at me, and says “Heeeellllppp meeee” in a voice I’m not sure a mother could even love, pitiful and sad, but also incredibly irritating. “No way,” I think to myself. “I’m not about to pick you up and put you in that swing.” “Are you here with your parents?” I ask him. “Any adult?” He doesn’t answer; he just waves his green plastic flyswatter and lolls back and forth. I scan the playground, looking for someone who might match him… a frazzled looking mom, with her hair slipping into her face, a bored teenage babysitter who thinks the kid is beyond weird, a pasty faced man in jeans, who’s a little rough around the edges.
“I can’t help without your parents’ permission,” I tell him. “Let’s wait for them, ok?”
There’s no one who looks like him– just the regular crowd of neighborhood moms from Mexico, India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh. And what disturbs me more, I think, is that there’s no one looking for him. Even I can’t imagine a scenario to explain it.
He releases his grip on the swing and steps away, batting the flyswatter in the air. Then, he is preoccupied by his arm, which he pulls close to his face and then pushes away. “Scraaaatch meeee!” he says to the Mexican woman next to me, extending his arm toward her, forcing it upon her. I look at her expression, which seems to ask “Should I do this?”, but she does- she scratches his arm and then looks at me helplessly before scanning the playground and looking back at me again.
“These days, you can’t be too careful,” she tells me, in Spanish.
The boy walks away from the swings and out of the playground.